When I took my first job out of portfolio school, I went from producing one book-worthy campaign a month to maybe one a year. That’s quite a downshift. I was working just as hard, but the timeline of multi-layered client approval processes wasn’t something portfolio school had bothered to simulate.
So even though I was in an atmosphere that championed great work, two solid years of putting my book together left me feeling like I should be doing a lot more. That’s when my then-boss, Kevin Lynch, recommended I pick up a side project—some kind of pro-bono work I could do on my own time that would give me some creative freedom and a timeline I could control. I remember Kevin saying he tried to take on one side project a quarter.
Today, Kevin’s the creative lead at Proximity BBDO in Chicago. But he’s still doing side projects. He’s launched Chair-Free Chicago, We Are Literally Exaggerating, and Chicagoans for Rio. Not coincidentally, he also does some great work for paying clients.
When I first started taking on side projects, I did it as a way to increase my chances of getting in the awards shows. And that’s not a bad thing, although the line between “side project” and “scam ad” is uncomfortably blurry. But the more side projects I’ve taken on in my career, the more I realize their importance. And I’m convinced one of the best ways managers and mentors can boost morale in an agency is to encourage side projects. Look at what a successful one can do:
1. Add a piece to the creatives’ books. Translation = happier creatives.
2. Add a piece to the agency portfolio. It shows employees, clients, and potential new hires that the agency values all kinds of great work. Once again, happiness.
3. Keep creatives’ brains in motion. A great side project isn’t a drudgery to work on because it’s something they should feel passionately about.
4. Let the team play in new areas that paying clients might not be asking for. And if it’s exploring new media, the team and the agency can end up smarter.
5. Let junior teams shine. There’s no hierarchy; no senior teams grabbing the plumb briefs. Suddenly, the creative department’s a meritocracy. Again, with the happiness.
Jim Bosiljevac’s a creative director at DDB San Francisco. He and one of his teams recently launched First-Stop.org, a directory of photographers and illustrators that tries to reduce the massive paper waste that’s usually used to create promo books.
There was no brief for this. No kick-off client meeting. Just a few people in San Francisco who thought it would be nice to stop killing trees. And because DDB SF is the kind of agency that encourages side projects, First-Stop.org went from being “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to “check out what we just did.”
“Side projects happen because people are passionate about them and are willing to dedicate a lot of their own time to them,” says Bosiljevac. “Paying clients always have to come first, obviously. Side projects happen on the side. But if it’s a fun project, it doesn’t feel like work when you’re staying up late to bring it to life.”
How do you get a side project? If you’re like Kevin or Jim, you start with an idea and either educate yourself or enlist some really talented people to help you roll it out. But I’ve cold-called clients and offered my services before, and that’s worked, too.
I’m a huge fan of America’s national parks. A few years ago, I did a little Googling to found out who was in charge of advertising at the National Parks Conservation Association. I called them up and told them I’d give them some creative ideas for free. I didn’t have any at the time, but I was pretty sure I could come up with some. A few months later, my partner and I helped them launch a new campaign. It was successful for them, for us, and the agency. All because I cold-called an organization I cared about.
If the side projects are for a paying client, even better. In strengthens the agency-client relationship when those lucky-strike extras are consistently offered up. If you’ve got a client who sees the value in that kind of work and actually makes the effort to produce some of the pieces, it’s going to result in creatives wanting to work that much harder on their business.
So if you’re a creative director or an agency principle, look around and find out what side projects your creative teams are spending their time on. I guarantee they’ve got them. Side projects are always happening; it’s like downloading music illegally. You can’t stop it, but you can give it a little direction. When it’s encouraged, especially among juniors, the agency stands to gain as much as the creatives. Morale goes up. Complaining goes down. Why wouldn’t it? The creatives are at a shop that lets them do great work.
Greg Christensen is a brand creative at The Richards Group. He came to Dallas by way of Switzerland, after transferring to Geneva from Y&R’s Chicago office. He’s taught at the Chicago Portfolio School, co-authors makinads.com, and graduated from the VCU Brandcenter. Though an upstanding citizen, he once gathered and set fire to 178 Christmas trees in his mother’s field. Find him on Twitter @happygrc or contact him at